Commentary on #ukfechat forum discussion on graded lesson observations – 28th February 2014
As I lay recuperating in my sick bed last night, I decided to ‘observe’ from afar as a vibrant community of FE Twitter folk debated the #ukfechat topic of the week: ‘Observations: Is it time to ditch the grade?’ As someone who has been actively researching, talking and writing about the topic of observations for the last decade both in the UK and abroad, I was tempted to get involved but my sinusitis persuaded me otherwise that it was best to remain on the peripheries of the discussion as an ‘insider looking in’, if you know what I mean!
As all those working in FE and indeed schools will know, lesson observation is a hotly debated topic. The fact that there was such a lively and diverse debate on last night’s forum should therefore come as no surprise to anyone. In some ways the debate was a microcosm of a wider discussion that continues to reverberate around the corridors of colleges and schools across the country. I recently had a memorable first-hand experience of this when I was analysing and writing up data from the largest study ever to be conducted into lesson observation not just in FE but in the English education system as a whole. In the first part of the project, participants were asked to complete an online survey, at the end of which was an empty box for them to write any comments they had about observation in general. Oh my, did I underestimate the volume of responses that small box alone would generate?! Just under half of all those completed the survey (approx.. 4000 in total) chose to write detailed comments, which when added together totalled over 100,000 words. So, let’s just say there’s no shortage of opinion when it comes to the topic of observations.
I’m conscious that this is a blog entry and I don’t want it to turn into a long piece of academic writing, if people are interested in that type of thing then they can look at some of the articles I’ve written recently or better still, buy my book! So let’s return now to the forum discussion. I made some notes early this morning of things that stood out for me and I just want to touch on some of those things, not necessarily in any particular order.
The ‘assessing learning/the lesson’ myth
One of the issues that cropped up on several occasions was the old cliché of ‘assessing the learning not the teaching’. For some time now, we have been sold this spurious argument with graded observations that it is the ‘learning’ in the lesson that is being assessed and graded and NOT the teacher. This is a complete fallacy and it needs to be put to bed once and for all. Firstly, if it is the ‘learning’ in the lesson that is being judged, then why does the grade follow the teacher? Why are teachers labelled as ‘outstanding’ or ‘inadequate’ and rewarded or reprimanded accordingly? This is a divisive practice that is commonly reinforced by some employers explicitly naming their ‘outstanding’ teachers, even celebrating their achievements in ‘awards ceremonies’. Besides, if the emphasis is meant to be on the learning taking place rather than the individual performance of the teacher, why are the outcomes of graded lesson observations directly linked to capability procedures in some workplaces?
Any attempts to separate the act of teaching from learning are not only artificial, but crudely ignore the symbiotic relationship between the two. As Ted Wragg (1999) once proclaimed, ‘the act of teaching is inseparable from the whole person and to attack the one is to demolish the other’ (p. 91). And the idea that ‘learning’ can be accurately measured through the medium of observation is highly contested and the reality is that we are light years away from ever being able to make such a claim with any degree of authority. The pseudo-scientific art of grading seduces us into believing that observer judgements have greater objectivity and reliability than they can actually claim to have. And why is that? It is because on the surface numbers have a ‘scientific’ quality to them, which makes people less likely to question what they are deemed to represent. In the case of graded observations, there is an assumption that the use of the Ofsted 4-point scale has some kind of objective value comparable to the use of a calibrated measuring instrument such as a thermometer. Yet this is clearly a myth. They are, of course, dependent on the subjective interpretation of observers so the application of a grade can never be wholly reliable.
Wanting to be graded or know the grade
Of course, there are some teachers who are keen to want to know the grade even if they’re not being graded. This is indicative of what I’ve referred to in previous work as ‘normalised behaviour’. In other words, such teachers have become institutionalised into expecting a grade to be attached to an observation, regardless of the context or approach. They are unable and/or unwilling to conceptualise the use of observation outside of a performative context and see an umbilical link between their classroom ‘performance’ and attempts (because that’s all they are) to measure it. I can understand the ‘reward’ incentive of this for some but I think such a mentality does little to foster a collegial and collaborative culture in the workplace. I’m not opposed to the notion of competition per se but firmly believe that there is a time and a place for it and this is not it.
Tweeters that stood out
Overall I thought the level of debate was fantastic and I enjoyed observing it from afar. I feel there are a few tweeters who need a brief mention though as for me their balanced and critically reflective positions shone through their tweets and they were: @hannahtyreman @Shanie_Nash and @cazzwebbo. Also @GrahamRazey deserves a mention for raising the all-important point about cultures of teaching and learning being the lynchpin of any successful model of observation.
What we need is a fundamental reform of the way in which observation is used. Tinkering with the present system is pointless and only likely to have a minor impact. At the heart of such fundamental reform is the need to reconfigure the contexts and cultures of teaching and learning in which observation occurs, as Graham so rightly alluded to in his tweets. It’s not just about moving from one formulaic model to another but root and branch reform; a fundamental reconceptualisation of how we engage with observation and that inevitably requires removing the assessment straitjacket that currently constrains how people perceive it and what it’s used for.